One afternoon in May, some 20 second graders sat in pairs around their classroom in Ravenswood, West Virginia, playing an arithmetic game with dice. Trudy Humphreys, their teacher, sat to one side, with a student whose glasses protruded from her elfin face. “How’s it going? What’s been happening lately?” Humphreys asked as the girl counted on her fingers, adding up 11 and six. “My parents have finally been getting along,” the child responded brightly. Carefully, she marked “17” on the paper in front of her.
When that game was over, Humphreys played with a serious, curly-headed boy who spoke in a voice so soft that I could barely hear his response when she asked how things were at home. It’s a question she’s been asking more often lately, as “home” has become a complicated subject for many of her students. The boy lives with an adoptive family after being removed from his birth parents; the girl once lived with her family under a bridge a few counties over.
Humphreys, who speaks in a high, gentle voice and rides motorcycles in her spare time, was once a student at Henry J. Kaiser Elementary School, or HJK. She’s spent most of her 31 years of teaching at the school, too, which is named for the steel and aluminum magnate who, in the 1950s, brought thousands of jobs and a few decades of prosperity to the small community on the banks of the Ohio River. When Humphreys was growing up, Ravenswood was a placid town where everyone knew everyone, and your parents heard what happened at school before you got home. According to local legend, Ravenswood once held the Guinness world record for most churches per capita. People left their doors unlocked, and “You could walk into someone’s house and not worry about what was in there,” Humphreys recalled.
Once expected to employ more than 12,000 people, the facility that Kaiser built now has some 1,100 workers. The bloodletting began in 1981, when over 1,500 people were let go. Since then, as the aluminum industry has declined nationwide, Ravenswood—with a population of fewer than 4,000—has seen successive rounds of layoffs, plant closures, and union battles. More than 650 people lost their jobs when another local factory shuttered in 2009. Today, Ravenswood’s main street is a short strip of fast-food restaurants, vacant storefronts, and dimly lit antique shops. Over a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line. HJK, which teaches about 370 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, has more students living in poverty than any other school in the county; every student there gets free breakfast and lunch.
Along with the layoffs came drugs. Between 2006 and 2008, at least 16 teenagers and young adults in Jackson County, where Ravenswood is located, died from prescription-drug overdoses, their bodies found in parked cars and neighbors’ yards. Amy Haskins, the administrator of the Jackson County Health Department and the director of the county’s antidrug coalition, said those deaths were the first local sign of the nationwide wave of opioid addiction that now kills more Americans a year than car crashes. At one point, Haskins said, tiny Ravenswood had three “pill mills”—clinics and pharmacies that prescribed painkillers indiscriminately. “We went from having a pill problem to heroin to shake-and-bake meth, back to heroin, fentanyl, and now we are at crystal meth again,” she said.